O, For a Brand New Tongue to Sing

It was our second day in northern Tanzania, last month. We rumbled down the rural road and pulled off next to a small building in a small nondescript outcropping of civilization. Outside stood a dozen Maasai women waiting for our meeting to start and for the others to arrive. They seemed very energetic and confident, so I engaged them in an informal video interview, our translator busily working beside me.

In the meantime, another 20 or so people showed up, so we all moved into the building and onto low benches. At first I sat with the ladies, instead of on the front row across the aisle – where the guests were supposed to sit. But soon it became clear this was problematic for our translator, so I moved over. Some formalities have utility, as well.

This was an interesting group: they comprised the Community Care Coalition for this district. World Vision organizes these groups of local volunteers, simple community members plus some religious and government leaders, who band together to respond to HIV and AIDS in their midst. They care for orphans and vulnerable children living around them, near them, with them, and care for people living – and dying – with the virus. AIDS has shredded the renowned African social fabric in many places, and the CCCs are the front line of personal care and the proving ground for new community coping mechanisms.

World Vision’s long-term goal, and the focus for our trip, is to see these CCCs equipped to ultimately stand on their own and act as full-fledged local nonprofits, capable of running programs, managing budgets, receiving grants… and extending the reach of NGOs and government agencies into remote hamlets and hidden family shames.

In fact, after meeting with this group, we saw those very things as we went offroading to visit a “family” of 4 sisters, age 10 to 16, who fend for themselves. They were ashamed to actually say they are orphans, but both parents died 4 years ago and they have lived alone ever since. Well, almost alone. Evelyn is the faithful CCC volunteer who looks after them. They told us “We love it when Evelyn comes. She is the only person who visits us.”

These “home visitor” volunteers each look after 10 so-called Child-Headed Households. They check in weekly, they see if the children have some food, they encourage them to somehow stay in school, they pray, they distribute help that comes through the CCC (such as 10 chickens and a coop)… They serve as extended families and aunties to children who have none.

And make no mistake: these are mostly moms, indignant women who think it’s shameful that anyone’s kids would live like this. And like women around the world, they are eager to find some way to turn their indignation into action.

On the way to this home, we stopped at a surprisingly large (relatively) farmhouse. Turns out, Evelyn had advocated on behalf of a mentally-challenged girl from a different child-headed household after the girl had broken her leg. The girl didn’t understand that she shouldn’t move her leg, and she needed someone to watch her for 6 weeks so her siblings could continue to work the fields and go to school. So Evelyn went to the farmer’s wife and, woman to woman, showed her a tangible way she could help this child by letting her live with them. For six weeks. Simple, cost-free, yet tangible.

Here’s something you can do

A plow to put your hand to

It’s not forever nor too much

But you can be God’s loving touch

The lady said yes, the child was resting peacefully — at least until our entourage of mzungu white strangers lumbered into the dimly lit room and petrified her.

But back to earlier in the day, when we were just getting to know these soldiers of passion and healing. As we each introduced ourselves, one volunteer started by saying “Bwana asifewe!” Our translator explained that, although the group isn’t confined to Christians, most members are, and a common greeting among believers is “Praise the Lord” – or in Swahili, Bwana asifewe.

“Asifewe”… I scanned my mind’s hard drive: I know that word. Yes! It’s in a Swahili worship song I often taught to American churches or other groups years ago as I led worship. I hadn’t sung it in maybe five years, but as the introductions continued around the room, the tune and words came in a flood. “Yesu u hai leo, asifewe!”

As it turned out, I was the very last person on the very last row to introduce myself. I did so and then said “I think I know a Swahili worship song” and mentioned it. Oh, many of us know it, the translator exclaimed, and you must sing it for us! No, no, but please you sing it and I’ll listen. No Cory, you must sing it — and we will join in.

Of course, you know that I sang it. Actually, we sang it, arms swinging over our heads, round and round ’til I even added the descant on the (literally) hallelujah chorus.

That’s when I remembered my vocal cord surgery of two weeks earlier, and that I hadn’t sung but a few odd notes since then! I quickly slipped outside my own body and thought, “I’m singing! God gave me my voice back, just in time to sing his praises.”

OK, I didn’t go full-tilt, but just about. We finished, they started the meeting, and half an hour later the group asked if we could sing it again. And this time, a colorful rail-thin Maasai woman came over mid-song and hung a big white handmade cross around my neck, which was my prized possession from the trip.

Amazing how, when God works things together for good, it’s to His glory.


September 2009

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